Thursday, 4 July 2013

A Something Else That Stirs Man

‘A Something Else That Stirs Man’: A Fourth of July Appreciation of Charles Ives
(written for Stockhausen Syndrome)

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them…
-        The Declaration of Independence, 4th July 1776

Music is one of the many ways God has of beating in on man –
his lifes, his deaths, his hope, his everything –
an inner something, a spiritual storm,
a something else that stirs man
in all of his parts [and] consciousness, and "all at once" –
we roughly call these parts (as a kind of entity) "soul" –
it acts thro or vibrates or couples up to human sensations in ways
(or mediums) man may hear and know:
that is, he knows he hears them
and says (or thinks or feels) he knows them. –
further than this,
what this inner something is which begets all this
is something no one knows –
especially those who define it
and use it, primarily, to make a living. –
all this means almost nothing to those who will think about it –
music -- that no one knows what it is –
and the less he knows he knows what it is
the nearer it is to music – probably.
-        Charles E. Ives, memo on notepaper of the St. James's Palace Hotel, London, June 1924

America was less than a century old when Charles Ives was born. Hearing his work, which is rich with quotations, you’d guess he spent his childhood lapping up music; folk ditties, popular hymns and the patriotic tunes his father’s marching band probably played are heard alongside key motifs from European classical compositions. As the critic Christopher Ballantine noted, Ives’ use of quotation was interesting because he seemed to choose his sources for their semantic connotations rather than their musical qualities: their meaning and associations outside of their musical context. They relate to ‘a way not only of hearing,’ Ballantine suggested, ‘but also of responding, feeling, relating, thinking.’

   There’s little doubt that, as a composer, Ives was ahead of his time. As Leonard Bernstein said (when introducing a performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 2), Ives ‘experimented with atonality way before Schoenberg, with free-dissonance way before Stravinsky, with quarter-tones way before Alois Hába.’ His work remained obscure for most of his lifetime, with many of his published works going unperformed until after his death in 1954. But looking at Ives’s music and his writings, it’s clear that his particular modernism was an exploration of his own Americanness: still a new idea in Ives’s time, and by its nature an idea that embraced newness.

Bernstein introducing Ives’ Symphony No. 2

   Ives looked to the literature and philosophy of his nation for inspiration. Responding to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, he dreamt of a music that (as he wrote), would be ‘a language so transcendent that its heights and depths would be common to all mankind.’ He wanted a music free even from its physical boundaries of what can be played or what can be heard –
My God! What has sound got to do with music! [And] is it the composer’s fault that man has only ten fingers? What can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born – perchance ‘a bastard of the slums’… That music must be heard is not essential – what it sounds like may not be what it is.
This glorious, impossible ambitiousness is there in his unfinished ‘Universe Symphony,’ which was ‘to be played by at least two huge orchestras across from each other on mountaintops overlooking a valley’ and would tell the story of the creation of the universe.

   But for me, Ives is addictive not only for his astonishing ambition but also for his ability – like Whitman’s – to contain his vast ideas within understated, deceptively simple forms: the ‘Alcotts’ and ‘Thoreau’ movements of the Concord Sonata, for instance, or the haunting ‘Unanswered Question’. Their glorious strangeness, their sensitivity, reflect the best qualities of American identity, worth celebrating on the 4th of July.
The Unanswered Question

Concord Sonata: Movement IV: Thoreau

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